On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Dr. Benjamin Starnes joined a small group of military medical personnel waiting on a bus outside Walter Reed Medical Center, and descended into chaos.
The bus was on its way to the Pentagon, where terrorists had just flown a plane into the nation’s military headquarters that morning. Starnes had seen the video of planes attacking the World Trade Center towers on the old box-style television in the Walter Reed waiting room, grainy footage that left him with no idea what to expect.
“And then we look up, and we’re sitting in gridlock in Washington, D.C.,” said Starnes, now the chief of vascular surgery at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “Nobody’s going anywhere. There’s just a wall of cars in front of us. There are people honking their horns. There are sirens blaring, I look off to the side and I see people wearing full business suits with briefcases dressed up to go to work and they’re sitting on the sidewalks, crying, you know, weeping because their world has just collapsed. I mean, it seemed as if everything stood still for a moment.”
Starnes recounts the harrowing — and often untold — story of the attack on the Pentagon in the new book “American Phoenix: Heroes of the Pentagon on 9/11,” written by his brother, Lincoln Starnes.
It was a life-changing day for most Americans, few more so than Starnes, who, as an Army surgeon at the time, would go on to serve in the ensuing Gulf War in Iraq. He pitched the idea of gathering stories about the medical response at the Pentagon not long after that day. But they shelved the project a few years in when publishers told them there was no longer an appetite for 9/11 books.
Four years ago, as the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks approached in the distance, Starnes persuaded his brother to revive the project.
“These stories have got to be told,” Starnes told his brother.
They discovered that time had not filled out the story of the attack at the Pentagon. While the nation grieved over an open wound in New York, they discovered even 15 years later there just wasn’t very much information surrounding the events in Washington, D.C., all but forgotten in the long shadow of the towers.
“You remember that the Pentagon was rebuilt within a year,” Starnes said. “And look how long it took to rebuild the World Trade Center or to even create a monument there. There was a committee and there was a request for proposals and it took 20 years to do that. But the military was like, ‘Boom, we’re up and ready for business again.’ ”
On the bus that day, Starnes and his colleagues weren’t sure they’d be able to help. They were 7 miles away and there were stalled cars as far as they could see. Starnes called for a noncommissioned officer and half-jokingly asked the soldier to clear a path for the bus. The staff sergeant took 10 combat medics who had been assigned to the group and filed out.
One by one, cars pulled out of the way.
“I guess if I was sitting in one of those cars, I would have been, ‘Holy [expletive], the Army’s coming!,’ and so it was like the parting of the seas,” Starnes said. “The people, the cars just started to divide as we went down 14th Street, and the bus picked up speed and we picked up the medics as we encountered them running down the middle of the street.”
Starnes remembers looking out the bus window and being struck by the scene as the Washington Mall came into view.
“We look up and it’s a perfect day,” Starnes said. “I mean it was perfect weather, beautiful blue skies, and we see all the monuments in their full glory. And we look across the Potomac River and there’s this giant plume of black smoke emanating from the Pentagon.”
When they arrived, their overanxious bus driver got so close to the building that the heat forced them to retreat some distance. Military personnel, FBI agents and D.C. fire crews swarmed the site, everyone trying to gain control of the scene where American Airlines Flight 77 had slammed into the building.
Almost immediately there was an ultimately false report of another incoming plane attack.
“And so everybody started to run away,” Starnes said. “And I just followed a guy with a dark blue jacket that said FBI in yellow on the back of it. I just said to myself, ‘He looks like he might know where he’s doing, so I’m going to follow him.’ ”
Despite the chaos and the effectiveness of the attack, the death toll at the Pentagon was 189 (22,000 people came to work that day), a figure Starnes said would have been much higher except for two factors: the heroism in the moment of a handful of Pentagon employees who kept running into the building to rescue injured personnel, and the fact that the section targeted had been recently reinforced during renovations.
“If it had hit any other wall at the Pentagon, it would have caused much more destruction,” Starnes said.
“American Phoenix,” released in June, landed as the U.S. bookended two decades of fallout from 9/11 with the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The outcome there was ultimately disappointing to Starnes, who had friends serve and die in what’s been called “the forever war.”
“I think that all of the events in Afghanistan recently were predictable,” Starnes said. “It was entirely predictable and could have been avoided with better leadership and better decision-making from our military leadership. I think there was a massive, epic failure on the part of our military leadership.”
The response to the fallout in Afghanistan is another reminder of how divided the country has become in the two decades since 9/11. Starnes hopes “American Phoenix” will serve as an inspiration in a time when we need one.
“The book is really a series of inspirational stories and I think more than anything at this time, with the pandemic and with everything that’s going on in our country, we need those sorts of stories because it’s what pulls us together,” Starnes said. “You remember the feeling that everybody had, the feeling of unity, after 9/11? The country was unified after that event, and we haven’t had that feeling since.”